The Phoenix Suns will head home after their 10-day road trip with little more than a head-scratching 1-5 record to show for themselves. There were nights where they were simply outplayed (against Detroit and New York), nights where they couldn’t seal the deal (against Philadelphia and Toronto) and then there was Tuesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies at the FedExForum.
Playing their sixth game in 10 days against a superior Memphis squad, it was almost expected that the Suns would come out and play to their familiar role: dig an early first half deficit, fight tooth and nail to get back into the game, yet fall short when push came to shove.
Instead Alvin Gentry’s squad flipped the typical script on its proverbial side in the Suns’ 108-98 overtime loss.
After Memphis got out to an early 14-12 lead behind 12 combined points from their star big men — Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol — Phoenix forced six turnovers over the final 5:53 of the first quarter and used a 13-4 run to build a seven-point lead after 12 minutes of play.
Yet again, the Suns received phenomenal contributions off their bench from Luis Scola (16 points, eight rebounds and three steals), Jermaine O’Neal (12 points and two blocks) and Jared Dudley (13 points and three assists), especially in the second quarter, as Phoenix saw its lead balloon to 16.
But on the road against an elite team like Memphis — who came into Tuesday night’s game with the highest winning percentage in the league — the key to scoring an upset victory is learning how to pull the knockout punch as early as possible. For the Suns, that punch never came.
Although Memphis shot just a shade under 40 percent in the first half, the Grizzlies relied on their opportunities at the free throw line. In all, Lionel Hollins’ squad got to the charity stripe an astounding 21 times in the first half and converted on 14 attempts over the final six minutes of the half to cut the Suns’ lead to 52-45.
In the third quarter, the entire pace of the game took a turn in Memphis’ favor. While Phoenix briefly built a double-digit lead to start the second half, the Grizzlies began to turn up the intensity at the defensive end and the Suns had no answer. Paint chances started becoming non-existent, sloppy play reminiscent of their first quarter in New York began to set in (seven third quarter turnovers) and a comfortable lead disappeared in the blink of an eye.
Although the Suns still led by four on the scoreboard after 36 minutes of play, it was clear that they were hanging on for a dear life against an opponent who wisely could smell fear.
While Gentry left his bench combination of Dudley, Scola, O’Neal and P.J. Tucker out on the floor down the stretch to go along with Goran Dragic (19 points and seven assists), their effectiveness began to wane as Randolph and Co. took over down the stretch. Playing like a bona fide MVP candidate, Randolph had his way with O’Neal, scoring eight of his game-high 38 points in the final frame to pull the Grizzlies even at 91 with 1:31 remaining.
After Mike Conley converted on one of his two free throw attempts following a clear-path foul by Scola with just over a minute to play, the Suns’ power forward redeemed himself with a beautiful hook shot on the left block over Gasol to put the Suns back on top by one with 37 seconds left. The Argentinian then poked the ball free from Mike Conley on Memphis’ next possession, but the Suns couldn’t capitalize on the mistake, as Dragic split his pair of free throws.
Down two with under 30 seconds to play, everyone from Beale Street to Graceland knew who Hollins was going to draw up a final play for: former All-Star Rudy Gay.
After getting the ball on the perimeter, Gay took Tucker off the dribble, and despite good help-side defense from Scola, calmly flipped the ball with his right hand from 12-feet out over both defenders to tie the game at 94.
On the ensuing possession, the Suns had a chance to pull off a last-second victory but poor execution by Dragic forced O’Neal into a tough 20-foot jump shot, which he missed as time expired.
In the extra session, Randolph outscored Phoenix on his own (6-4) to help Memphis win going away, as the Suns dropped their season-high fourth straight contest.
“Against a great team like [the Grizzlies], you have to finish and we just didn’t,” head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters. “The effort was there, especially playing the sixth game of a six-game trip. The effort was great. We just didn’t quite get it done.”
For all of the silver linings Gentry and his coaching staff will likely search for on their three-hour flight back to Phoenix, one thing is becoming clearer and clearer as the season progresses. The Suns don’t have a go-to-guy to win a game late, and they probably won’t all season.
A Shannon Brown layup here, a Michael Beasley finish there and a better final possession against Memphis may have made all difference in the Suns finishing their 6,300-mile trip 4-2 instead of 1-5. But the NBA is not a game of hypotheticals. None of those things happened and it doesn’t appear that Suns are any closer to finding a late-game solution at the offensive end than they were say before the season began.
Of their seven wins, not one has come against a team with a record above .500. And although Phoenix has pulled off some remarkable victories against the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Orleans Hornets, when playing teams with more talent, hustle and effort will not win out. It takes an ability to rise to the occasion when the pressure is at its greatest, and although the Suns went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the Western Conference Tuesday night, they head back to the Valley with nothing to show for it.
- If Zach Randolph’s MVP candidacy hasn’t taken off yet, Tuesday night certainly would seem like a good place to start. Z-Bo had his way with Markieff Morris early and Marcin Gortat late, en route to his league-leading 14th double-double (38 points and 22 rebounds) on the season.
- Sebastian Telfair did not accompany the team to Memphis, as he stayed back in New York to deal with a personal matter. Because the team sent rookie Kendall Marshall down to the D-League this past week, undrafted free agent Diante Garrett saw his first meaningful minutes in the NBA. In nine minutes of action, Garrett scored one point, dished out three assists and also added a steal.
- The Suns play eight of their next 10 games at home starting with Thursday’s nationally-televised game against the Dallas Mavericks. In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock, consider this a friendly reminder that the organization has planned a rather unique promotion for the contest called “Satisfaction Guaranteed Night.” Basically, if you attend the game and are not happy with your experience — be it the on-court product, poor parking, lousy concessions, etc. — you can send your ticket stub to an address provided on the team’s website and get your money refunded.